The man thought he should call her name.
He stopped his horse just inside the tree line. Mist rose on the pond ahead of him to the height of a child so that trees on the far side seemed to be growing out of nothing. Their high-summer green was dark under the heavy clouds and weak light. He wished for bright sunlight for several reasons, but the light, such as it was, came from all directions and cast little shadow. He could see into the underbrush at the edge of the forest better than at bright noon.
The stallion’s ears were up and forward, his nostrils wide. The man watched and listened but decided that there was no alarm. He’d thought he’d paid good money for a good horse but the stallion’s extraordinary watchfulness was one of the reasons he had begun to think he may have underpaid.
He shrugged the short cavalry bow off his shoulder, nocked an arrow, and dismounted by kicking his right leg over the horse’s neck and landing on the mounting side, in a slight crouch. The man was of medium height, agile as a fencer, with the shoulders for wielding a broad ax.
He waited, listening, attending to his horse’s attention. After a few moments, he relaxed. The minimal slope of the turf in front of him down into the pond promised yards of sucking mud before the horse could drink clean. He dropped the reins on the ground in front of the horse and moved out of the tree line. A score of paces to his left was rock ledge running into the pond. He kicked some of the slick moss off it and returned for his horse.
He didn’t lead the horse to water. They walked side by side as friends would. He decided the horse could fill his belly since they would each walk for the next hour or so, down the light to dusk. And he would camp cold.
He remembered about calling her name. But he didn’t want any to hear him, though it had been more than two days since he’d seen even an ancient trace of the works of man, nor did he want any listener to know whom he sought. He cursed himself for a coward, but reminded himself that if she were in near, he would find her anyway. So he had said for all the months of his searching. He had never called.
They made little noise on the damp leaf litter. Even fallen branches yielded with just a hushing sound. By nearly full dark, he’d found a beech tree growing from ground higher than the surrounding giants which, he hoped, would mean somewhat less damp.
There was just enough light to unsaddle the horse and feed him a double handful of grain to supplement his grazing. The man got half a trail loaf from the saddle bags, and a blanket.
He folded the blanket several times and sat on it, leaning back against the smooth bark of the beech. The forest was silent. He listened, a sense more important than sight in this darkling forest. He heard nothing but his horse shifting its weight as it dozed. He took out a stone and touched up the edge of his dagger. He closed his eyes. He could think of her better that way, and see her.
He thought, distractedly, that he’d collected two new scars on the journey to this tree, which was only a sleeping place until he could resume his quest. He’d had to buy refills for his quiver four times and he had, more than likely, a blood feud behind him. One petit baron owed him and seemed genuinely grateful into the bargain. He hadn’t told the baron about the object of his searching.
Coward, he called himself again, and slept.
A cramp in his back woke him. The shades were drawn and the morning’s light was dim. He shifted his position on the sofa and sat up.
He rubbed his gummy eyes and then looked at her picture on the table next to him. She had been clearly delighted to see whoever it was taking her picture. Her brilliant, unmeasured smile burned into the camera, which meant into the eyes of those who looked at the picture. She wore a black formal gown, modest enough, but her fabulous figure, of which she seemed as unaware as a toddler, was obvious.
“You smiled at me like that, back then,” he told himself. “I knew where you lived. I should have called. But…. Coward.”
There was sufficient in the bottle on the table. He finished the tepid port with long swallows. He put his chin on his chest and closed his eyes, willing himself to resume the quest.
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